The controversial idea of banning the purchase of soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks with food stamps could reduce obesity rates and new cases of Type 2 diabetes, according to a new Stanford University School of Medicine study.
Officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamp program has been facing increasing pressure from medical groups and nutrition experts to ban unhealthy food items, including soda and energy drinks, just as it now bars cigarette and alcohol purchases.
The new study — led by Sanjay Basu, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford — lends support to those calls by using computerized simulations to determine such a ban would significantly reduce the purchase and consumption of unhealthy junk foods, Medical Xpress
"Restricting or removing the subsidy that SNAP provides for sugar-sweetened beverages would be very likely to reduce Type 2 diabetes and obesity among low-income Americans," said Basu.
The study, published in the June issue of Health Affairs, found that a ban on sugar-sweetened beverages would result in 1.12 percent fewer adults and 0.41 percent fewer children becoming obese. These numbers represent about 281,000 adults and 141,000 children. Diagnosis of adults with Type 2 diabetes would decline by 2.3 percent.
With 46 million Americans receiving SNAP benefits, they represent hundreds of thousands of individuals, Basu said.
Researchers also calculated the effects of giving a 30-cent reward to food stamp participants for each dollar they spent on fruits and vegetables. The reward program would double the number of people who met the daily recommendation for servings of fruits and vegetables.
"This is a rigorous and well-conducted study," said David Stuckler, a senior research leader in sociology at Oxford University. "It reminds us of the critical importance of addressing the root financial causes of rising obesity and diabetes in the United States."
Other government assistance programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, do not allow the purchase of sugary drinks and limit purchases to only healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and whole-grain items. SNAP restricts only the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, and hot foods prepared in the store. Soda, salty snacks, and junk food are all eligible for SNAP benefits.
Because tax dollars fund SNAP, critics argue that taxpayers are subsidizing an unhealthy diet that boosts healthcare costs associated with obseity, diabetes, and heart disease. Obesity-related healthcare expenditures have been estimated to cost the U.S. $147 billion a year.
In June 2013, a bipartisan group of 18 mayors of major U.S. cities signed a letter addressed to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asking them to add to the 2014 Farm Bill a provision banning the use of SNAP funds for sugar-sweetened beverages. But the changes were not adopted.
Nutrition researchers say sugary drinks can spike sugar levels in the blood and damage the body's ability to respond to insulin and control blood sugar. Unlike some other types of junk food, such as chips and cookies that provide small amounts of nutrients, soda has no nutritional value.
"Sweetened beverages are off the charts in terms of the diabetes risk they pose," Basu said.
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